I've been wanting to write about this both beautiful and fun tradition for a while now. To be exact, since 1995, when I first witnessed it while living in Gottingen, Germany. Since then I wrote many articles about my travels in Germany, but never wrote about this interesting ritual that draws hundreds of people to the main square in the small university town of Gottingen in Lower Saxony, Germany. Gottingen has been a subject of my articles a few times, but the city offers so many interesting events and traditions that some of them deserve their own articles.
The Gänseliesel (English: Goose Girl, Goose Lizzy (Liesel as pet name of Elisabeth)) is a fountain which was erected in 1901 in front of the mediaeval town hall of Göttingen, Germany. Although rather small in size, the fountain is the most well-known landmark of the city. Today, it is an essential part of the graduation celebrations for every student who finishes a doctorate at the George August University Göttingen to climb the fountain and to kiss the statue of the goose girl. No matter what time of the year or day they graduate, this tradition takes place right right after the graduation on the same day. This last December, my father's Ph.D. student was graduating and he asked me to come down to the Gänseliesel to take photos and video of the ceremony, which, of course, I would do anyway, even if he wasn't one of my father's students.
In Göttingen the Gänseliesel is located at the main square, where the largest city Christmas market takes place, so the statue of the goose girl was surrounded by the Christmas market stalls and there were many people eating and drinking the gluhwein all around, so when the graduating student arrived, there were a lot of people standing around, some of whom had no idea what the whole fuzz was about and when the moment came, the student dressed in the graduate hat, which is usually signed with some words of wisdom by his classmates and professors, jumped on the steps of the Gänseliese fountain, then climbed the statue and both placed the flowers and kissed the girl, while all the people standing around astonished started to clap and scream. Usually, it makes the student shy and he/she climbs back to the ground very quickly. Once on the ground, the graduate student is greeted by their student fellows, professors and friends and family and the celebration continues over dinner and drinks. Here's a few videos that some students and students' friends made of the ceremony over the years, click here to see video 1 and video 2. You can see my video here.
I found this ceremony, even though it's a relatively short ceremony, very entertaining. I've seen quite a few of them in Gottingen in the last twenty years and I always thought, why don't we, here in USA, have similar celebrations. Of course, every university has some kind of a graduation tradition, but I always wanted more - something like the Gänseliesel one, say, a student graduates with a degree in finance at New York University and goes to pay tribute to either the Wall Street Bear or the Charging Bull on Wall Street? Wouldn't it be something? Or, say, a student graduating with a degree in African Studies goes to lay the flowers to the African Burial Ground, a national monument - the burial site in Lower Manhattan of over 400 Africans from the 17th and 18th centuries? Or, say, a student graduating from Juilliard School goes to pay tribute to the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, the home of the jazz legend for 28 years? I'm just thinking out loud....
More about the Gänseliesel tradition:
There's more than one Gänseliesel statue in Germany; some other German cities hold the same ceremony. There's also one situated in Monheim am Rhein, Hanover's Steintor Square and Berlin's Nikolsburger Square.
Since the 18th century, a fountain was located on the site of the Gänseliesel. However, the old fountain was partially pulled down in the early 19th century due to deterioration. In 1898, the city council decided to construct a new fountain, for which sculptors from all over Germany presented their proposals. From all designs, the neo-gothical proposal "Im Geiste der Alten/Tugendbrunnen" ("In the Spirit of the Ancients/Fountain of Virtue") by the sculptors Mehs and Jehs was favoured while the goose girl design by the architect Heinrich Stöckhardt was only ranked second place. However, after the official ranking the three best designs were put on exhibition. The citizens of Göttingen widely preferred the simpler design of the goose girl, probably because the simple girl image best represents the common people - in contrast to the numerous statues of famous university scientists found in the city. After long discussion, the Gänseliesel, then designed by the architect Heinrich Stöckhardt and created by the sculptor Paul Nisse, was finally put up in 1901 without any official ceremony. The Gänseliesel fountain does not have any particular connection to the history of the town. The Original of the sculpture is today in the Town Museum (Städtisches Museum).
Soon after the fountain was erected, newly-enrolled students of the Georg-August University began to climb up the fountain and to kiss the statue which rapidly became a university tradition. Because the climbing of the fountain was usually celebrated with excessive consumption of alcohol and loud cheers of fellow students and because the number of students largely increased after World War I, police issued a decree in 1926 that officially forbade the climbing and kissing of the statue. A law student who was prosecuted for kissing the goose girl in the same year, took the case to court. However, the superior court of justice in Berlin legitimated the edict.
The tradition itself has changed over time, and today it is unusual for first year students to kiss the statue, but most of them still do it, like the students in Göttingen. Nevertheless, it is now more common to bring a bouquet of flowers to the Gänseliesel and to give her a kiss after one's official reception of the doctorate degree. It is for this reason that the fountain is decorated with flowers very frequently, and throughout the year. Until today, climbing and kissing of the monument remains officially forbidden although both the city of Göttingen and the university advertise themselves with pictures of PhD graduates kissing the girl.
As the fountain has been subject to vandalism, the original statue of the goose girl can today be seen in the Stadtmuseum while the fountain only carries a copy. After a severe assault during the winter of 2004 (malicious arson), the fountain needed to be disassembled and underwent major restoration.
Since 1995, each year on a weekend in September the city of Göttingen stages the so-called "Gänselieselfest" in honor of the goose girl. Main event of these festivities is the election of a young woman from Göttingen as the Gänseliesel, representing the town and the statue for one year.
Scroll down to the related articles to see other articles about Germany, like this article about the new Berlin or the summer activities not to miss in Germany or Halloween celebration in Germany, among many other travel stories.
Here's some tips on traveling to Göttingen:
1. There are not direct flights to Gottingen from other countries. You would need to either fly to Frankfurt and take a train (2.5 hour ride) or fly to Hannover and take a train (about 4 hour ride). The best trains to use are ICE or IC, which are express trains; there are also regional trains, but they stop at almost all stops along the way. You can book it here. It's, actually, very easy once you book it once and get a hold of it. Always reserve a seat, which is an additional 8 euros, but you'd definitely want to do it because I saw many people (especially students) saving on it and then ending up standing in the train salon waiting for an empty seat. After a long flight, this is the last thing you'd want to do is to stand for a few hours on a train. Also, when buying train tickets, make sure you're buying with a card that you'll be taking with you on a trip, because, the ticket attendants would want to see this card along with the ticket, so, no train tickets can be transferred to another person, if you decide to cancel the trip. You can return them, but you'd loose some money, not much, but it's best to do so anyway.
2. Gottingen is a small town, and unlike American small towns, it does not have a great variety of the hotels available, and they get booked very quickly, because this is a very large university town and they receive many foreign students and professors/scientists who visit for a short period of time, and they often stay at the local hotels. Note: some of the hotels are located in the outskirts of the town - in the little 'villages', like Nikolausberg. However, don't let it confuse you. These villages are, in fact, very close to the town and besides a very good bus system, you can actually walk and bike to the center of Gottingen.
3. Once in Gottingen, you don't need to have a car. Actually, you are better off not to have a car. Gottingen has one of the best bus systems in the country, as well as known as the 'bike' town among the Germans. There are more bikers in the town than pedestrians, as a matter of fact. So, you can either rent and/or borrow a bike, or get a bus schedule at your hotel and use the buses to commute. Unless you'd want to explore the university campus, pretty much everything you want to see in Gottingen, you can easily walk to by foot.
4. Best times to visit Gottingen are late Spring, Summer, very early Fall and the first three weeks of December. Here's why:
As I often mention this in my articles about traveling in Europe, Europe is not like USA. In Europe, there are certain seasons for certain foods and traditions:
Spring is known for its Asparagus season, which means, there'll be local fairs celebrating the asparagus harvest, the restaurants will serve everything with asparagus of various kinds (cream asparagus soups, grilled asparagus, white vs. green asparagus, etc.), so, if you are a big fan of this vegetable, late Spring is the best time for you to visit Gottingen. Click here to see more on how the Spring looks in Gottingen.
Summers are just very nice in Gottingen. The town and that part of Germany is very green. So many trees and flowers bloom. It becomes a true flora paradise. But it's not for someone who has allergies, as in Germany, they do not get rid of those plants that are hyper allergic, not like in USA. Also, at the end of Summer, in August through early September, it's the season for chanterelles - wild mushrooms, and it's, by far, my favorite time to visit as I'm a huge fan of chanterelles. Like with asparagus, during the harvest season, this kind of mushrooms end up on all the restaurant menus, it's especially delicious in a cream soup and as a garnish for the pork, lamb and chicken schnitzel.
Visiting in December is my other favorite time to visit because of Gottingen's absolutely fun and diverse Christmas market (or as they call it - Weinahtsmarkt). It's one of the best I've seen in Germany, although, Christmas market in Erfurt is considered to be one of the nicest and largest in the west Germany. I've visited it with my parents as well, and still, I consider Gottingen's Christmas market way much cozier and fun. I love, love, love this time of the year in Germany. Gottingen becomes a magic, filled with the holiday spirit, town - like a place out of the Hans Christian novel. Click here to see the photos of the Christmas market and learn more about visiting in this time of the year.